You may not have noticed but there's been a changing of the guard when it comes to SSDs based on Marvell controllers. The first Marvell SATA 6G drive to enter the market was the Crucial C300. The C300 battled it out with the first generation SandForce controller which at the time were limited to SATA 3G speeds of 285MB/s read. The C300 took advantage of SATA 6G and mustered an impressive 375MB/s read speed in our tests of the 256GB model. At that time Crucial was the only SSD manufacture using a Marvell controller. Last year Crucial released their second product based on a Marvell controller, the Crucial m4. The exclusivity was lost though as more companies started churning out products based on the Marvell design, mainly Intel, Corsair and Plextor.
The competition wasn't favorable for Crucial and the Marvell SSD market was pretty evenly divided amongst the newly formed Team Marvell group. For the most part each of these Marvell products resembled the other and there wasn't a real standout. Intel jumped ship completely and is now playing for Team SandForce, partly because they couldn't compete with their IMFT flash and the Marvell controller. Crucial is in that same boat as of now but with 20nm IMFT flash far on the horizon they are a ship without a paddle. Then there is the unbound.
Plextor, without restrictions on flash type was able to move away from the aging 25nm IMFT flash and set their sails towards a performance treasure chest, 24nm Toshiba Toggle Mode Flash.
There's performance on this island, we just have to find it
Initially Plextor launched M3, the first retail SSD to use Toshiba's 24nm Toggle Mode flash. The performance was very good, but Plextor kept digging for more. The Marvell controller has a history of lacking write performance during the initial stages of drive development.
In some cases this is intentional so companies can manufacture two products that are divided by performance, a mainstream and an enthusiast SKU. The Plextor M3 Series was the mainstream, now we have the Pro model and it's built for you.
Specifications, Pricing and Availability
The Plextor M3 Pro is the latest evolution in the M3 series of products. Today we're looking at the 128GB model and focusing mainly on its performance, specifications and value. Plextor has already released a 256GB model (that will be reviewed here in a few days) and a massive 512GB drive that my notebook is dreaming about.
Plextor made a few key changes for the Pro model, all of which we will discuss today. For most of us the largest difference is the increase in performance. Now up to 535MB/s read (510MB/s on the M3) and up to 350MB/s write speed (210MB/s on the M3). This increase in performance comes from some fine tuning of the programming which can be felt while using your computer in many situations. The largest performance increase comes to the write speed, an area where professional users see and feel performance increases. Programs like Photoshop, Logic Audio, Cakewalk and so on benefit a great deal from high sustained and random write speeds. This is the target user for Plextor with their M3 Pro, but that doesn't mean power users and enthusiasts are left out in the cold because more performance equates to a better user experience.
Physically the Plextor M3 Pro has changed as well. Ultrabooks are the talk of the town and we are all keeping an eye out for a hot deal on one of these slim sized works of technology beauty. Just about every SSD maker we have spoken with has promised a 7mm Z-height drive that fits into many ultrabook designs, but Plextor is one of the first to deliver. The Plextor M3 Pro fits this tight requirement.
Most ultrabook's are designed with an understated performance benefit to users that is often overlooked by CPU crunching enthusiasts, long battery life. You don't just want to throw any SSD in your ultrabook or you could start mucking up your 8+ hour battery life. This is an area where Plextor spent quite a bit of time on and the new Plextor M3 Pro only draws .1watt while idle. On the high-end of the power curve the M3 Pro is only pulling 5 watts. For comparison the OCZ Vertex 3 has a claimed idle power consumption of 1.65 watts or 165 times the draw of the M3 Pro. After looking around we've learned that some traditional mechanical HDD manufactures have stopped publishing their idle power draw numbers. I wonder why?
As we mentioned the Plextor M3 Pro is already on sale. We found the 128GB model that we're looking at today available at Newegg for $204.99. This is a $20 price premium over the M3 128GB model.
When it comes to add-ons and accessories, none standout as brightly as Plextor's five year warranty. Plextor also includes a generous software package that includes disk cloning and backup software. Also included with the M3 Pro is a desktop adapter bracket, a must for easy desktop installation. Screws for securing your drive in the bracket and in your system are also included as is an easy to follow installation guide.
The Plextor M3 Pro ships in a shiny package! The overall presentation is attractive, but we care more about the information given. Plextor is highlighting their five year warranty, software bundle and the inclusion of the desktop adapter bracket on the front. It's a good start.
The full product specification sheet is listed on the back of the package. Other manufactures take note; this is what consumers want to see when shopping retail at the B&M stores.
As if they could do no wrong in the packaging segment of this review, Plextor tucked the drive neatly inside of a foam base with the adapter bracket on the outside (it was moved so you can see it in the image). The software and manuals are slid into a separate compartment and placed in a separate bag.
Few companies deliver such an extensive bundle.
Plextor M3 Pro 128GB SSD
Plextor M3 Pro 128GB SSD
Brushed aluminum is always a safe bet when making an attractive SSD.
Most of us could really care less about how an SSD looks unless the drive is going to be used in a highly modded system with visibility given to the storage array. On the functionality side the bottom mounting positions are where they should be.
Speaking of functionality, when it comes to ultrabook's that accept only 7mm Z-Height drives, the Plextor M3 Pro is one of a very few drives on the market today that conform to this new standard.
The desktop adapter bracket allows you to install the drive in your desktop without fuss. The adapter even keeps the SATA power and data connectors offset for systems with backplanes.
I have to admit I was a little worried about the densities of these new 24nm Toshiba Toggle Mode chips and if manufactures would be able to fit a full spread of eight chips in 128GB drives.
The Plextor M3 Pro, just like the M3 only gets a 256MB DDR3 cache on the 128GB model. I was hoping the 128GB Pro model would share the same 512MB buffer found on the 256GB and 512GB drives.
The flash controller is on the opposite side of the flash. Plextor is using the Marvell 88SS9174-BLD2 for this release. I was expecting to see a -BKK2, what we found on our M3 series sample. To date we've seen three different models, the other being -BJP2. Now that we are talking directly with Marvell we'll track down what the differences are.
Benchmarks - Test System Setup and ATTO Baseline Performance
You can read more about TweakTown's Storage Product Testing Workstation and the procedures followed to test products in this article.
In order to fully utilize SATA III you need a system with native SATA III support. P67, Z68 and X79 systems are preferred, but AMD has made advances in their newer SATA III systems as well. Older X58 systems with Marvell based SATA III ports do not deliver the same high levels of performance, so we recommend newer systems when available.
ATTO Baseline Performance
Version and / or Patch Used: 2.34
ATTO is used by many disk manufacturers to determine the read and write speeds that will be presented to customers.
In our first test we see the Plextor M3 Pro taking advantage of the increased write speed, now up to 350MB/s in our tests. The read speed reached an impressive 540MB/s, just 10MB/s shy of SandForce's compressible data read speed. The Plextor M3 Pro doesn't distinguish between compressible and incompressible data, though.
Benchmarks - HD Tune Pro
HD Tune Pro
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.00
Developer Homepage: http://www.efdsoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.hdtune.com
HD Tune is a Hard Disk utility which has the following functions:
Benchmark: measures the performance
Info: shows detailed information
Health: checks the health status by using SMART
Error Scan: scans the surface for errors
HD Tune Pro gives us accurate read, write and access time results and for the last couple of years has been gaining popularity amongst reviewers. It is now considered a must have application for storage device testing.
This is the last time you'll see this format on our performance charts. The Crucial m4 drives are being replaced and the Plextor M3 Pros will gain residency.
The Marvell controller has never had a problem with sequential read performance and that is also true with the M3 Pro 128GB drive.
Write performance either sequentially or while random has kept the Marvell controller back. The M3 Pro doesn't let old stereotypes get in the way of delivering very good performance in this test. Oh how far they've come too, the M3 Pro 128GB doubles the average sequential write speed of the Crucial m4 128GB.
Benchmarks - AIDA64 Random Access Time
AIDA64 Random Access Time
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.60
Developer Homepage: http://www.aida64.com
Product Homepage: http://www.aida64.com
AIDA64 offers several different benchmarks for testing and optimizing your system or network. The Random Access test is one of very few if not only that will measure hard drives random access times in hundredths of milliseconds as oppose to tens of milliseconds.
Drives with only one or two tests displayed in the write test mean that they have failed the test and their Maximum and possibly their Average Scores were very high after the cache fills. This usually happens only with controllers manufactured by JMicron and Toshiba.
The new Toshiba Toggle Mode flash has been putting up some very impressive latency numbers. Here we see the M3 Pro delivering an amazing .07ms read latency performance. This comes very close to the OCZ Octane's .06ms that we recorded a few months ago, the lowest we've seen to date.
Access time and especially read access time is what makes your Windows, applications and general computing experience feel much faster when using SSDs. Most of the manufactures like to talk about their large read and write sequential performance because big numbers are more marketable than small ones. It is these small numbers though that you can really feel while using your system.
The write access times on the Plextor M3 Pro 128GB are the lowest we've recorded to date on a computer, non-PCIe drive. I don't think it is electrically possible to get any lower with SATA.
Benchmarks - CrystalDiskMark
Version and / or Patch Used: 3.0 Technical Preview
Developer Homepage: http://crystalmark.info
Product Homepage: http://crystalmark.info/software/CrystalDiskMark/index-e.html
Download here: http://crystaldew.info/category/software/crystaldiskmark
CrystalDiskMark is a disk benchmark software that allows us to benchmark 4K and 4K queue depths with accuracy.
* Sequential reads/writes
* Random 4KB/512KB reads/writes
* Text copy
* Change dialog design
* internationalization (i18n)
Note: Crystal Disk Mark 3.0 Technical Preview was used for these tests since it offers the ability to measure native command queuing at 4 and 32.
In CDM we are looking at 4K and native command queuing performance. The Plextor M3 Pro reads single command 4K data at 35MB/s, on par with many other SSDs on the market today.
This test is more significant on the 128GB class of products than it is on the larger drives. The reason why is because for years the smaller 128GB SSDs hit a brick wall when the commands are stacked, shown here by the 120GB Vertex 3 and Crucial m4 128GB. The M3 Pro doesn't have the same limit; the drive just keeps pushing the limits as commands are stacked.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage Hard Disk Tests
PCMark Vantage - Hard Disk Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage/
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
FutureMark has developed a good set of hard disk tests for their PCMark Vantage Suite. Windows users can count on Vantage to show them how a drive will perform in normal day to day usage scenarios. For most users these are the tests that matter since many of the old hat ways to measure performance have become ineffective to measure true Windows performance.
HDD1 - Windows Defender
HDD2 - Gaming
HDD3 - Windows Photo Gallery
HDD4 - Vista Startup
HDD5 - Windows Movie Maker
HDD6 - Windows Media Center
HDD7 - Windows Media Player
HDD8 - Application Loading
In the standard Vantage run we see that the Plextor M3 Pro is very fast in real-world applications. We scored over 84K Marks in this used state. This is the industry standard test with the drives empty. We prefer our own method though on the next page.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage - Drives with Data Testing
PCMark Vantage - Drives with Data Testing
For a complete breakdown on the Drives with Data Testing please read this article. You will be able to perform this test at home with the files provided in the article - full instructions are included.
- Brief Methodology
SSDs perform differently when used for a period of time and when data is already present on the drive. The purpose of the Drives with Data testing is to show how a drive performs in these 'dirty' states. SSDs also need time to recover, either with TRIM or onboard garbage collection methods.
Drives with Data Testing - 25%, 50%, 75% Full States and Dirty / Empty Test
Files needed for 60 (64GB), 120 (128GB), 240 (256GB)
60GB Fill - 15GB, 30GB, 45GB
120GB Fill - 30GB, 60GB, 90GB
240GB Fill - 60GB, 120GB, 160GB
Empty but Dirty - a test run just after the fill tests and shows if a drive needs time to recover or if performance is instantly restored.
HDD1 - Windows Defender
HDD2 - Gaming
HDD3 - Windows Photo Gallery
HDD4 - Vista Startup
HDD5 - Windows Movie Maker
HDD6 - Windows Media Center
HDD7 - Windows Media Player
HDD8 - Application Loading
Our version is a little more complicated, but we feel it is a more accurate representation of your real-world usage. Using the 50% full state as our guide (middle bar in each pairing) we determine the Vantage score with the drives half full. The Plextor M3 Pro technically is a little slower than the OCZ Vertex 3 in this state, but the numbers are very close.
There aren't many drives on the market that can compete with the Vertex 3 like this, but the Plextor M3 Pro is doing a very good job closing the gap.
Benchmarks - AS SSD
AS SSD Benchmark
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.2.3577.40358
Developer Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
Product Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
AS determines the performance of Solid State Drives (SSD). The tool contains four synthetic as well as three practice tests. The synthetic tests are to determine the sequential and random read and write performance of the SSD. These tests are carried out without the use of the operating system caches.
In all synthetic tests the test file size is 1GB. AS can also determine the access time of the SSD, the access of which the drive is determined to read through the entire capacity of the SSD (Full Stroke). The write access test is only to be met with a 1 GB big test file. At the end of the tests three values for the read and write as well as the overall performance will be issued. In addition to the calculated values which are shown in MB/s, they are also represented in IO per seconds (IOPS).
Note: AS SSD is a great benchmark for many tests, but since Crystal Disk Mark covers a broader range of 4K tests and HD Tune Pro covering sequential speeds, we will only use the Copy Benchmark from AS SSD.
- Copy Benchmark
The Plextor M3 Pro with its Marvell controller and 24nm Toshiba Toggle Mode flash may be just a hair slower in the real-world general computing tests, but when it comes to file transfer performance, there is no competition. The Plextor M3 Pro even manages to outperform the larger 240GB Vertex 3 in these tasks.
Benchmarks - Passmark
Passmark Advanced Multi-User Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 6.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Test Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Many users complain that I/O Meter is too complicated of a benchmark to replicate results so my quest to find an alternative was started. Passmark has added several multi-user tests that measure a hard drives ability to operate in a multi-user environment.
The tests use different settings to mimic basic multi-user operations as they would play out on your server. Variances is read / write percentage as well as random / sequential reads are common in certain applications, Web Servers read nearly 100% of the time while Database Servers write a small amount of data.
The Workstation test is the only single user environment and will be similar to how you use your system at home.
Plextor isn't selling the M3 Pro as an enterprise drive, but with this level of performance, that isn't going to stop some of you. When I see this chart I'm reminded of the specifications sheet that lists the M3 Pro as having a higher IOPS rating than the standard M3.
The SandForce drives, represented here by the OCZ Vertex 3s are close cousins of the enterprise SF-2500 models. The Plextor M3 Pro though has brought some respect to the Marvell controller which is now able to run with the consumer SandForce models in these enterprise tasks.
The Plextor M3 Pro 128GB is just full of surprises. If you are starting to get excited about this release, but have a little more coin to spend on a larger model we've already published performance benchmarks in our 24nm Flash Face Off article last week. Our full review of the 256GB M3 Pro will hit the site in a couple of days. While finishing this article Plextor released a new firmware update for the M3 Pro drives so we're going to go back into the Secret Bunker testing facility for some one-on-one time. We'll publish the updated results in the full M3 Pro 256GB review, so stay tuned.
In the introduction we talked about how Plextor is emerging as the big Marvell controller based SSD manufacturer - only time will tell if this is just a situation where luck played a big role or if Plextor is going to stay on top of the hill. Plextor certainly knows how to play the role of being the best on the market. Their innovative thinking made Plextor the leader for enthusiasts for several years in the optical reader market. Solid state drives, at least in the consumer space are headed to the same commodity product status within the next three to five years. That means the focus on speed and truly innovative features will slow while companies turn their attention to price reductions. Hopefully this time around Plextor does not slow development and presses on with their instincts to push the envelope of performance. Just to elaborate before you may get the wrong idea. Anyone looking for the highest quality optical drive should still look no further than Plextor; just the really remarkable breakthroughs like bit-to-bit disk duplication are few and far between these days.
Getting back on track. Plextor has managed to use that performance instinct to take the Marvell controller to heights we never thought we'd see. The ground gained in just the last year on the SandForce controllers is remarkable. I never thought I'd see a Marvell based drive using a variant of the same controller released two years ago on the Crucial C300 rut tit-for-tat with a SandForce based drive in enterprise tests.
The same can be said in the consumer day-to-day tests when the drives are filled to 50% capacity. The Crucial m4, another Marvell based drive took a real beating when compared to the SF-2200 series drives, yet somehow Plextor was able to make up ground there as well.
If there is any fault with the Plextor M3 Pro 128GB at this time, it is the price. The dual DDR3 cache doesn't help in keeping the cost down, but this is still the new kid on the block too. Over time the new to market pricing will wear off and we'll see a reduction. Hopefully Plextor will be able to compete on the price front with the SandForce drives just like it does on the performance side.
Given that the Plextor M3 Pro manages to keep pace with the Vertex 3 120GB at 50% fill and manages to outperform most if not all of the SF-2281 controlled drives in the file transfer tests, I'd say this is quite possibly the fastest 120/128GB drive available on the market today. We've yet to see the SanDisk Extreme 120GB, but that will come. Can you ask for 24nm Flash Face Off II? We're working on it, but until then the Plextor M3 Pro 128GB has my respect and endorsement.
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